Putin said he had ordered his diplomatic staff to step up their efforts to achieve a settlement to end the civil war which has cost at least 250,000 lives and is due to enter its sixth year on Tuesday.
Western diplomatic sources were both skeptical and startled by Putin’s unexpected and mercurial move. “We will have to wait and see what this represents. It is Putin. He has announced similar concessions in the past and nothing materialized,” a diplomat at the talks in Geneva told the Guardian.
Putin and US President Barack Obama spoke on the phone on Monday, with the Kremlin saying the two leaders “called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement” to the conflict. The White House said Obama welcomed the reduction in violence since the beginning of the cessation of hostilities but “underscored that a political transition is required to end the violence in Syria.”
Russian officials have repeatedly denied several allegations by the Syrian activists and rights groups accusing the Russian campaign of indiscriminate attacks and causing enormous civilian casualties. Moscow has also come under fire for targeting moderate opposition groups, while claiming to be fighting Islamic State.
“If there is seriousness in implementing the withdrawal, it will give the talks a positive push,” said Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the rebel high negotiations committee. “If this is a serious step, it will form a major element of pressure on the regime, because the Russian support prolonged the regime. Matters will change significantly as a result of that.”
The talks are likely to be deadlocked on the extent to which Assad will be allowed to remain in power during any political transition and after any fresh UN-supervised presidential elections due in 18 months.
The Kremlin withdraws the statement ans said Putin and Assad agreed the actions of Russia’s air force in Syria had allowed them to “profoundly reverse the situation” in connection to fighting terrorists in the region, having “disorganized militants’ infrastructure and inflicted fundamental damage upon them”.
“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” Putin added. “I believe that the task put before the defence ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled. With the participation of the Russian military … the Syrian armed forces and patriotic Syrian forces have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism and have taken the initiative in almost all respects.”
Putin said that the existing Russian airbase in Hemeimeem in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia and a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartous would continue to operate. The Russian air force has been capable of running 100 sorties a day from the base and would be able quickly to re-equip it if it felt the military balance required it to do so.
The Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said on Monday the intervention had led to the death of 2,000 rebels fighting against the Syrian government and the killing of 17 field commanders. He added that more than 200 oil installations had been attacked, 400 settlements taken and the chief route to supply rebel fighters from Turkey had been cut off.
Russian airstrikes killed 4,408 people including 1,733 civilians between September 2015 and early March 2016, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Given that Russia-backed separatists launched one of their biggest offensives in Ukraine in February 2015, just as Putin joined other world leaders in negotiating a ceasefire, there will undoubtedly be scepticism over whether the announcement of the end of the Syrian mission can be taken at face value. However, Russia’s overarching goal of securing a lead seat at the table over the fate of Syria has clearly been achieved. A withdrawal will prevent the inevitable “mission creep” that appeared to be on the cards.
“Essentially, they’ve achieved their goals,” said Mark Galeotti, professor of global affairs at New York University and currently based in Moscow. “They’ve stabilised the regime, turned momentum round on the battlefield so the regime has the upper hand, and now we’ve got a ceasefire and political talks.”